"Crusaders of the Lost Mark" is that last step.
That refers primarily to the ending, which is perhaps the high point of what was until then a very admirable episode that wasn't without its own issues. It is, for most intents and purposes, yet another "reformation" episode, this time for Diamond Tiara. The sheer number of these would be bordering on overkill by now if this sort of episode weren't so appropriate to the theme of the series, but this one does have enough to set itself apart. Specifically, this is the show's second attempt at a musical episode (after the abominable "Magical Mystery Cure"), and while it falls into some of the same structural pitfalls, it benefits from a far, far stronger script, which allows the audiovisual prowess on display here to shine.
There's a lot to go over here, so let's get the issues out of the way first. The last time the musical format was used, it masked a considerably condensed story that resulted in a few plot points being resolved far too quickly. That is, unfortunately, still the case here. Diamond Tiara's backstory is finally introduced, fittingly involving an abusive parent with overly high expectations. It seems obvious in retrospect that Diamond's actions were the result of overcompensation, but it would be nice if there had been hints of this beforehand. Still, not really this particular episode's fault. Still, the episode's overindulgences result in Diamond having massive character growth in a distractingly compressed amount of time, which unfortunately detracts from what is genuine character depth.
The other main issue is that this is an aggressively unsubtle episode. There's one abysmal moment where Diamond Tiara is at a literal crossroads between good and evil, and while that scene is turned on its head later, it's still an appallingly clunky bit of imagery that was really not necessary. The song lyrics are occasionally clunky as well, which is a shame, because the story being told is fairly solid and the compositions are perhaps the season's strongest. It's nice to see such a return to form with the musical numbers after the dull tunes of the earlier episodes.
Despite the pacing issues, Diamond's character arc is still surprisingly believable for one that has come almost out of nowhere five seasons in. These redemption arcs have increased in quality since their first appearance in the third season, and though Diamond might not be the very pinnacle of them, hers is probably one of the most believable, partially given that it's one of the few that makes perfect sense. Like Gilda, the circumstances that led to her being a villain are explored, but unlike Gilda, those circumstances are fleshed out in satisfactory detail. Again, it's all fairly rushed, and yet it still works where it counts. Diamond Tiara's final turnaround is a genuinely emotional scene, and it's not impossible to feel sorry for her when her mother is being cruel to her-though, again, it would be easier if it weren't for the previous several seasons.
The Cutie Mark Crusaders are presented here as a force for change in Diamond, feeling sympathy for her and telling her that there's another way to get attention. They're mostly interchangeable here, but it's not all that bothersome considering the epic scale of the episode. "Crusaders of the Lost Mark" plays out less like a straightforward story and more like a grandiose retelling, compressing details and adding significant bombast. This initially seems melodramatic, but the comparison to a retelling gains additional weight considering something that occurs later. In several scenes, the combination of music, story and visuals is hard to call much less than sublime, and that's more than enough to make up for the episode's faults.
But let's stop beating around the bush and get to that ending, shall we? Do you remember my "Bloom and Gloom" review? In the fourth paragraph of that, I mentioned that it was leading towards the Crusaders getting their cutie marks. I'm sure you know where I'm going with this.
In the final scene of the episode, the Cutie Mark Crusaders finally realize that their crusade might not be for their own cutie marks, but for others to understand theirs. Soon after realizing this, a bright light shines over them from nowhere, in a scene entirely unlike any other time we've seen a pony gain a cutie mark. What this means will have to be seen, but it just might be the single most exciting thing the show has ever done. Now, the Crusaders have matching cutie marks that reflect their new focus, It makes sense, really: Their favourite hobby has always been to search for their cutie marks, and now that they've finally exhibited the growth hinted at in "Bloom and Gloom" and even "Appleoosa's Most Wanted", they've realized how that can be used to help others. And hey, unlike "Bloom and Gloom," "Crusaders of the Lost Mark" actually gets the facts right about cutie marks, so that's a huge plus.
This episode is probably gonna be overshadowed by its ending for a very long time, and not without reason: My Little Pony hasn't done anything this massive since Twilight became a princess, and unlike that disaster, this change actually had a strong lead-in. But taken on its own merits, this is still a solid episode, containing the show's increasingly frequent story compression but still proving deep and emotional despite that. If that's not the sign of a strong episode, I'm not sure what is, and it confirms one thing for me. I don't need this show to be perfect. All I want, really, is that it's moving forward and living up to its potential, and in this second half of season 5, I think it finally just might be.
I cannot think of anything better for the fifth anniversary of this show.